Russia’s troop withdrawal from Kherson showed its military faces “real problems”, the US president, Joe Biden, has said, as his Ukrainian counterpart urged caution and warned his forces that a fight still lay ahead.
In a televised announcement on Wednesday, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, ordered his troops to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River in the face of Ukrainian attacks. Gen Sergei Surovikin, who is in overall command of Russia’s war operations, called it a “very difficult decision”, but conceded that “Kherson cannot be fully supplied and function”.
In Washington, Biden said the news showed the scale of the difficulties Moscow was facing. “It’s evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, Russia, the Russian military,” the US president told reporters. Regarding the timing of the announcement, he added: “I find it interesting that they waited until after the [US midterm] election to make that judgment.”
Ukraine has responded with caution, saying some Russian forces were still in Kherson and that additional Russian personnel were being sent to the region.
In his national address on Wednesday night, Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged restraint despite “a lot of joy in the media space today”, saying: “The enemy does not bring us gifts, does not make ‘gestures of goodwill’. We fight our way up.
“And when you are fighting, you must understand that every step is always resistance from the enemy, it is always the loss of the lives of our heroes.
“Therefore, we move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk. In the interests of the liberation of our entire land and so that the losses are as small as possible.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelenskiy, said in a statement to Reuters: “Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal.”
He later tweeted: “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight.”
Oleksiy Arestovych, another senior presidential aide, said Moscow’s intentions remained unclear. “They are moving out but not as much as would be taking place if it was a full pullout or regrouping,” he said in a video posted on Telegram on Wednesday night.
“And for the moment, we don’t know their intentions – will they engage in fighting with us and will they try to hold the city of Kherson? They are moving very slowly,” he added.
Mark Milley, the US’s top general and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said initial indications suggested Russia was following through with its withdrawal from Kherson but cautioned that it could take time to complete.
“It won’t take them a day or two, this is going to take them days and perhaps even weeks to pull those forces south of that river,” Milley said, estimating that Russia probably had 20,000 to 30,000 troops north of the Dnipro River in that area.
Milley also estimated that more than 100,000 of Russia’s soldiers had been killed and wounded in Ukraine, and added Kyiv’s armed forces “probably” suffered a similar level of casualties in the war.
His remarks offer the highest US estimate of casualties in the nearly nine-month conflict to date, and came as Ukraine and Russia face a potential winter lull in fighting that experts say could offer an opportunity for some kind of negotiations.
Asked about prospects for diplomacy in Ukraine, Milley noted that the early refusal to negotiate in the first world war compounded human suffering and led to millions more casualties. “So when there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved : seize the moment,” Milley told the Economic Club of New York.
The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Russia’s retreat was “part of an overall pattern” demonstrating that Moscow “has absolutely lost the momentum”.
“It’s part of an overall pattern or picture we have seen over the last month that Russia has absolutely lost the momentum,” he told Sky News during a visit to London.
“But we should not underestimate Russia, they still have capabilities,” he added. “We have seen the drones, we have seen the missile attacks. It shows that Russia can still inflict a lot of damage.”
Defending Surovikin’s decision to withdraw, the head of the Wagner private military corporation and Ukraine war hawk, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said: “The decision taken by Surovikin is not easy, but he acted like a man who is not afraid of responsibility. He did it in an organised manner, without fear, taking upon himself the full responsibility of decision-making.”
The announcement had also been anticipated by Russia’s influential war bloggers, who described it as a bitter blow.
“Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now,” said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram. “Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”